Sunday, June 08, 2008

Bi Forum Hosts Sexuality Conference


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Victor Olivares, Kellly Frizell, Dr. Regina Reinhardt, Kamala Devi, Tony & Ashley

Not many events hosted by groups in what’s awkwardly come to be called the “LGBT” community — for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender” — actually represent all four of those populations. But the conference on sexuality sponsored by the Bisexual Forum of San Diego at the Rubber Rose in North Park May 27 did just that. The panel included Bisexual Forum co-founder Dr. Regina Reinhardt; self-styled “bliss coach and author” Kamala Devi, who described her evolution from an exclusive Lesbian identification to bisexuality and polyamory; Gay student activist Victor Olivares; young Lesbian Kelly Frizell, who talked about surprising sources of support as well as opposition in the small town in which she grew up; and a Transgender couple who identified themselves only as Tony and Ashley, female-to-male and male-to-female Transsexuals who fell in love and got married.

The conference was organized and moderated by Bisexual Forum co-coordinator Daniel Watman. He set it up mainly to explore the idea that younger people are responding to a social environment more accepting of non-mainstream sexualities by being less militant, less concerned about “coming out” and adopting a Queer identity of one sort or another, and more willing merely to live their lives and express themselves sexually with whatever willing partners they encounter, regardless of their gender. Watman began the evening with a brief videotape from his interview with author Gore Vidal, published in the June 2008 Zenger’s, in which Vidal argued — as he long has — that the entire concept of “sexual orientation” is a myth and people are no more “born homosexual” than they are “born heterosexual.” “What do you think Julius Caesar would have done if he were asked, ‘My Lord, what is your sexual preference, or your sexual designs and strategies? What is it, Caesar?’,” Vidal joked in the taped interview. “He’d have sent you off to have your head chopped off.”

After the introduction, Oliveros spoke first, and indicated that for many in his generation, the wrenching struggles older Queers often went through over “coming out” and being visible are beside the point. “Some young Gay men like to be ‘out there and proud,’” he said, “but for myself and a lot of my friends, that doesn’t matter. A lot of my friends haven’t told their parents or grandparents. They’re just letting it happen, and it’s unspoken. I came out to my family and friends and was welcomed with open arms. The shocker for me is the whole Bisexual thing. I dated girls and had relations with women, but now that I’m comfortable in my own skin [as a Gay man], I can’t understand it.”

Dr. Reinhardt, who spoke next, reported that she had just returned from representing the American Institute of Bisexuality at a conference on Queer sexuality at the University of Mayaguez in Puerto Rico — and found that many of the people she spoke to there had the same difficulty understanding bisexuality as Oliveros did. “They had no idea about bisexuality,” she said. “They thought you’re either straight or Gay.” Dr. Reinhardt’s workshop was on the Klein Sexual Grid, a development of the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation created by the late Dr. Fritz Klein, author of the book The Bisexual Option and co-founder of the Bisexual Forum. “People were really interested” in testing themselves by the Klein grid, she said, adding that “we found out several people were Bi-inclined.”

“It’s becoming a bit easier [for young people] to be ‘not straight,’” said Frizell, deliberately picking a term that dodged both the awkwardness of the “LGBT” acronym and the negative connotations still associated with the word “Queer.” Frizell described coming out as “a process” and recalled growing up in “a pretty conservative town” — Vacaville, California — “and I was pretty intense about coming out. I shaved my head and was very androgynous-looking. My mom cried every time I came out of my room.” Despite the cow-town (the literal meaning of “Vacaville”) atmosphere, she added, “at my high school there were successful Gay adults, and I gravitated towards their classrooms because I found those safe places. I was lucky to have a diverse social system.”

Frizell said that she’s faced issues not only with straight people but fellow Lesbians who pre-judge her personal style on the “femme/butch” continuum. Oliveros said he too has dealt with fellow Gays who don’t think he’s “Gay enough,” whatever that means. “When I looked more butch, I got questioned by straight people more often,” Frizell said.

Devi said that she had a coming-out experience much like Frizell’s — “I was with women exclusively for seven years” — but then she met and fell in love with a man “who was more ‘woman’ than anyone I’d ever met.” Once she got involved in this relationship, she explained, “I had to come out to the Lesbian community as Bisexual.” She said she works as a “relationship coach” and found that the more honest she is with herself, the better she’s able to work with clients who come to her for help with their relationship issues — and the more comfortable other people she meets socially are around her.

One of the dicier issues Devi raised from her own life is “polyamory” — a relationship with multiple partners simultaneously that flies in the face of the one-at-a-time social norm for heterosexuals — and increasingly, with marriage equality becoming the number one political issue of the Queer community, Gays and Lesbians as well. “I’ve got a lover who’s a woman inside a man, my husband has a girlfriend and we’re sharing a boyfriend,” Devi explained. “Polyamory Pride is a lot different because I’ve accepted myself and I don’t have that need to make it a big deal. I really think that the feelings people have about coming out are about their own personal acceptance, and the reactions they get are reflective of where they are.”

“Transsexual doesn’t mean sexuality,” said Tony. “I’ve always been attracted to women.” He admitted that he hadn’t always understood this himself: “I thought it was about sexual orientation until I started transitioning. It’s just the essence of who we are inside, and why we’re born into the wrong body, I have no idea. … When I was first transitioning, the hardest times for me were when sometimes I was called ‘he’ and sometimes ‘she.’” Joking that he was born in Texas, “not the best place to be Transgender, Gay or Bi,” he was clearly proud that he’s made such a complete transition that “unless I tell someone I’m Transsexual, they don’t have a clue. … If people get to know me first as a human being, I’m accepted.”

Ashley, his partner, took issue with Vidal’s statement on the tape that sexual orientation is no more consequential than what kind of food you like. “I wouldn’t choose what I have gone through,” she said. “I grew up as a male, and men are socialized completely differently from women.” Not knowing anything about Transgender people when she was growing up, Ashley recalled, “I tried being ultra-masculine … to hide that side of me. Then I got to a point where I just couldn’t live like that anymore.” Though Ashley acknowledged that “sometimes the physical transition comes before the mental transition,” she made it clear that for her it had been the other way around.

Most of the audience questions at the event went to Tony and Ashley. Asked if each of them had known the other was a Transsexual when they started their relationship, Tony and Ashley both said yes. Tony said that dating Ashley “was different than anything before. Because we were both Transgender, we were a lot more aware of each other.”

“To me, it was about who Tony is,” Ashley said. “ I was really attracted to Tony. We really got to know each other first, and it was a long time before we had sex.”

“With a Transgender couple like us,” Tony joked, “before the surgery it’s a foursome and afterwards it was back to two.” More seriously, he added, “What I’ve come to discover is that when you’re Transsexual you end up burying so much of who you are, and after you transition you discover much of what is buried. I got in touch with my internalized homophobia as I got more comfortable with myself. Now I’m O.K., and wherever it goes is wherever it goes.”

A female-to-male Transsexual who said he’d grown up in Kuwait commented that “there’s a lot of bisexuality in Kuwait, and it’s all closeted. It was easier to portray myself as Bisexual because I thought that would be more acceptable.”

Tony responded by recalling his geographical transition as well as his gender one. “I moved to San Diego at 18 and I’m 40 now,” he said. “My parents died two years ago, and I couldn’t go back for their funerals because it was a small town and going back would have put my and my family’s lives in danger.”

One audience member asked Devi what helped her make the transition towards accepting herself as a polyamorist. “It sounds like you’re doing this exploration and observing your own transformation,” she replied. “Everybody deals with this differently, and what’s going to make it easier is when you have a conversation. Maybe have a conversation about what it’s like to be fluid” — “fluid” being a favorite term among Bisexuals to describe an orientation that can encompass more than one gender or more than one person at a time.

“Increasing communication with the people around you might help them feel better, because a lot of [their non-acceptance] is just ignorance,” Devi added — words that could describe just about any coming-out process. “When I don’t know what’s going on, I talk about it. What has made my path easier is having role models. What’s in the media is not representative. You need to meet people in the community who handle it well. We have to work hard to find positive role models. The mainstream has a strong current in one direction, and if we’re going to survive against that current, we have to come together.”

San Diego restaurateur and Bisexual Forum treasurer Carlos Legaspy asked a question about another topic on the list of issues open for discussion at the conference: whether the Queer community is losing its separate identity as alternative sexualities become more socially acceptable. “For a long time, we felt like we were in a war,” he said. “Now there’s a Wall Street Journal article called ‘The Death of the Gay Bar.’ Will we reach a point where sexual orientation is not an issue?”

“I don’t have Gaydar,” Oliveros joked, “and I like to go to a bar where I know the guys are Gay. The whole Bi organization needs to question this role. Carlos convinced me he’s Bi. I’m not against it, I just didn’t understand it. I guess it would help people coming out to have a way to identify with other people going through the same thing.”

Asked if the Gay/straight divide is dissolving all over the country or just in relatively open, cosmopolitan cities like San Francisco or New York, Reinhardt bluntly said, “If your life is being threatened, you can’t be who you are.”

Frizell, who had previously made her teen years seem a model for being accepted even in an unlikely environment — “I graduated from high school in 2000 and two years before there were already plans for a Gay-Straight Alliance” — backtracked a bit when that question came up. “I was involved with a hate crime in high school and I was subpoenaed in court,” she recalled. “I was called a dyke and a Nazi. Safe spaces can exist in unsafe places, and unsafe spaces in safe places. Everyone can exist in an unsafe environment.” She then cited an example that had nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity: the way that, due to gangs and the various “territories” they have staked out, “people in southeast Los Angeles know when they can walk where.”

“The benefit of living in San Diego is you get people from everywhere,” Oliveros said. “Friends of mine who grew up in Texas tell me they played it safe in high school — they played sports and had girlfriends — and after high school they came out.”

“We have to educate people,” Reinhardt said in summation. “That’s the only answer.”